It is the policy of London’s Underground, commonly known as “the tube,” to not accept advertising which, in the words of it supervisory authority, Transport for London, “may cause widespread or serious offence’.” By judging posters for the West End transfer of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews as potentially doing so, and therefore banning them, TfL may well be giving greater widespread offense for its oversensitivity, even if it comes from a place of genuine concern, which now rises to the level of censorship.
I don’t want to discount disturbing reports of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, but this poster won’t feed that trend. A Jewish playwright and a Jewish producer shouldn’t be prevented from their promoting their work because of fears of how some might misinterpret its name.
True, there is no governing body preventing the production of the play itself, and numerous other outlets – all presumably with a set of advertising standards – haven’t apparently taken issue with the ads. But in cutting off the miles of pedestrian tunnels used by countless shows to reach both natives and tourists alike, TfL has put a dent in what, by my own observations when visiting London, is a foundational part of a great deal of theatre marketing.
Had the poster been a stark white sheet with nothing but the words “Bad Jews” in big block letters and a tiny print phone number and web address, one might possibly mistake it as a political statement. If the play title were “Jews Are Bad,” you might at least be able the comprehend the protective concern. But the Bad Jews poster, with its rash of review quotes, billing of actors and creative team and clear identification as a theatrical production, can hardly be mistaken for anti-Semitic propaganda. It is, unquestionably, a show poster.
Presumably, this has not occurred because representatives of TfL have seen the play and decided that it’s ‘not good for the Jews.’ If that were their criteria, then presumably they have also banned posters for the current London run of The Ruling Class, a pitch dark satire whose targets include the Church of England and whose central character is a nobleman who believes he’s Jesus.
Let’s remember that the authority which has banished Bad Jews from The Tube is the same one that saw no problem with (strikingly clever, IMHO) ads for the English National Opera’s Don Giovanni in 2012, the ones which showed an open condom wrapper and offered the slogan (in big block capital red letters) “Don Giovanni. Coming Soon.” Surely the parents of some small children, asked to explain this image, may have felt offense. (I saw a modified version of the poster that read “Opening Soon.”) Perhaps, like so many censorious authorities before them, TfL misses innuendo until it’s pointed out to them, but sees offense in the straightforward. And, like so many censors, it makes arbitrary decisions that it can’t justify.
Of course, this is also the same authority that blurred out the face of Prince Charles on posters for the play King Charles III, again to avoid causing offense. I have little doubt that the Don Giovanni campaign was designed to be provocative, and generate buzz around the production, but it was consistent with the efforts of so many opera companies to attract younger audiences by marketing their work in a manner that blows the dust off of perceptions of the art form. In the case of King Charles III, the image was arresting, but probably tamer than many an editorial cartoon about the monarchy. I know many British people have great affection for the Royal Family, but was the original poster really offensive to anyone beyond the family, who as public figures have been subjected to worse (such as the puppets of Spitting Image) and who I imagine don’t spend any time in the tube? The British government may have abolished the censorship authority of their Lord Chamberlain in 1968, but perhaps former staffers or acolytes of that role have holed up in the Underground.
Like so much public censorship, the decision on Bad Jews has produced a round of ridicule in the British press, which also brings with it untold free marketing for the show. Transit for London may have kept the words “Bad Jews” off of its walls, but it has placed the show on the lips of people everywhere, and if that prompts even more people to see that very provocative, probing play about Jewish identity among millennials in America, one is almost tempted to thank them. Save for the genuine worry about what TfL, in their seemingly absolute authority, might seek to censor next.
Howard Sherman is Director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.